A ponderous voiceover narration sets the stage for this monster tale. The voice belongs to Vicaria, with determinedly played by Laya DeLeon Hayes, who in short order tells the story of how death has befallen her family many times. Her mother died of a stray bullet, her brother a victim of street violence and her father might be on his way due to substance abuse. She hypothesizes that death is a disease and like any disease it can be cured. With that introduction, writer-director Bomani J. Story lays the thesis for this new take on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” But “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster” has more on its mind than just adapting that horror classic once more. It infuses a contemporary American social critique onto the familiar plot and characters.
Vicaria, who’s jokingly referred to as both a “mad scientist” and a “body snatcher,” is a brilliant high schooler who’s not afraid of putting her far-fetched theories to the test. Before long, she has reincarnated her dead brother into a hulking moving “creature.” That plot jumpstart is used as a metaphor; death befalls Black Americans disproportionately because of systemic failings, and the only way to fight back is to eradicate it.
The subversion of horror tropes starts with the title. Vicaria might be angry, she might even be misguided in her theories, but clearly she’s not wrong. While a scary creature is a character in this story, the horror manifests in the murder of innocent children, street violence and police aggression against Black people. Yet the film also finds space for smaller horrors. microaggressions that can escalate quickly with life-altering consequences for Black people. Anyone who has winced when their name was deemed “difficult” to pronounce or has been asked about their “exotic” background will feel a jolt of familiar discomfort. These confrontations might be somewhat on the nose, but they never veer off into heavy-handedness.
Some of Bomani’s choices are obvious but no less effective. They are signposts to call out attention to the numerous beats that make up the narrative. The creature, sometimes referred to as “the monster,” wears a hoodie. That’s immediately evocative of the image of young Black men villainized for how they present themselves instead of any actual crimes committed. Vicaria’s glasses are broken mere minutes in the film, she never fixes them and the crookedness evokes her warped vision. A confrontation between the creature and a policeman, where the two almost morph into one another, poses the question: Who’s scarier, the shooter or the person being shot at?
A horror movie’s strength lies in disturbing its audience. While “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster” is more of a socially conscious satire, it has enough scares to create a disquieting mood. As Vicaria works on bringing back her brother to life, the camera lingers on all the fleshy physical details of the creature. The garage she works in and the instruments she uses have a refreshingly analog, DIY look that’s believable, as opposed to more contemporary digital tools.
Hayes makes for a compelling horror heroine. She not only uses her eyes and face to convey a multitude of emotions with intensity, but also has a way of delivering expository language that makes explaining scientific facts and theories sound like actual dialogue. As her sometime antagonist who eventually becomes an ally, Denzel Whitaker adds a dash of magnetism to the role of Kango, the neighborhood drug dealer. He’s helped by writing that rises above the stereotype of characters like this. Kango has a theory that addiction is an emotional issue and as a drug dealer he is providing a cure. He’s fixing people’s heartaches. The intellectual banter between him and Vicaria makes a lively counterpoint to the rest of the action, allowing the audience to ponder more existential questions.
The creature never actually becomes a character. He only appears in glimpses before quickly withdrawing. Instead, much more weight is given to another horror trope: the all-seeing precocious child. She’s the only one who sees the monster, yet there are no significant interactions between them, thus the character adds nothing to the narrative beyond creating a few eerie moments.
As the story nears its denouement, the filmmakers find themselves in a quandary, trying to absolve Vicaria. In reaching for an easy resolution, they lose their nerve and sand the edges of their lead character discarding their earlier lofty goals. Using horror to satirize systemic racial failures in American society is a bold goal, but with its unbelievable final resolution, the film falters somewhat in execution.